Someone to watch over me

The author’s 35-foot Ericson sloop. On a trip from Maine to Baltimore aboard the boat, the author received urgent news regarding her health. Should she continue south or head home? Photo by Tracy Adams

Beep! I heard the noise from down below. Beep! What was that sound? Had I forgotten to plug in the DeLorme InReach, my two-way satellite communicator? Beep! again. The propane sniffer for the stove? The Medtronic heart device finding a cell-phone tower? Autopilot failure? Shallow-water alarm?

Beep! I really needed to check this out. I stuck my head down into the companionway and waited for another beep. Oh, my cell phone. Voicemail. I hoped everything was OK on the home front.

It was the end of an exhilarating day, and we were motoring through the outer harbor of Cuttyhunk Island. After sailing from the northeast side of the Cape Cod Canal – a 30-mile run, with my daughter, Maggie, at the helm – I furled the sails, coiled the lines, and tidied the cockpit for the day.

It was almost dusk, and the wind had been building all afternoon. It was supposed to gust up to 40 knots that night. We had a rip-roaring sail, close-hauled, across Buzzards Bay. After hearing stories about steep seas in these shallow waters, we were fortunate to have the northerly wind and outgoing tide in our favor.

To take advantage of the tide and current, we couldn’t leave our slip in Sandwich, Mass., at the east end of the canal, until 11:30 that morning. In mid-October, the sunset was around 6 p.m. It was cold, the sun was low and we were exhausted. It was just before 5 p.m., so I thought I’d check my phone messages in case I needed to deal with an issue back home during business hours. The call was from my cardiologist, and his message left me feeling unsettled at best.

When I called back, I had to leave a message with the nurse, and was happy to get a return call from the doctor shortly after 5 o’clock.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked.

“Well, I’m fine, but . . . I’d like to see you make your way to the nearest pharmacy,” he replied. “Supraventricular tachycardia. Didn’t you feel your heart beating as fast as a hummingbird’s?”

Doesn’t he know that there are no pharmacies on Cuttyhunk Island?

All right, I’ll back up.

Maggie and I had been planning to sail from Maine to Baltimore in the fall. I’d wanted to do this for a few years, but the schedule of my merchant-mariner husband James didn’t seem to coincide with mine. So, this year, come hell or high water, I was determined, and I’d talked my daughter into joining me. The plan was for the two of us to get my boat to Baltimore and meet up with James for the next leg south.

My 35-foot Ericson is a comfortable boat, not an ocean cruiser, but she’s solid and sturdy and with a roller-furling main and jib. I could single-hand her if need be. I chose not to. Maggie is a great helmsperson as well as navigator, so we make a wonderful team.

In early September, as I was driving my car to town, I blacked out at the wheel. I didn’t make that pesky turn on the Sagadahoc Bridge, between Bath and Woolwich, and was lucky only to clip the back end of a car. I never saw the car I hit because the collision occurred while I couldn’t see. What I did see, as I came back “online,” was a tractor-trailer heading straight at me. Head-on, horn blaring!

I was in his lane! We each swerved to our right and just missed each other.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life, and it could have been so much worse. I drove straight to my doctor’s office, luckily only a quarter-mile away. My other daughter, Kate, picked me up, and drove me to the ER.

I’d flatlined for 22 seconds. Of course, I was hooked up to every possible monitor in the joint. Shortly after the “event,” my brand-new cardiologist came in and said, “That’s the fastest confirmation of a diagnosis I’ve ever had.” As his mood was lifted up, mine was spiraling down.

Three days later, as I was being released from the Maine Medical Center Cardiac ICU – new pacemaker ticking away – I was as determined as ever to make the sailing trip happen. Maggie and I each had figured out how to take some major time off work, and I’d be damned if I was going to postpone the trip south, yet again.

I’m a runner, always “the healthy one.” Low blood pressure, a good weight, very active. I couldn’t bring myself to accept anything else. I was careful to follow the recuperation instructions to a “T.” Two weeks later, I got the doctor’s go-ahead for our sailing adventure. Hooray!

I’d been making list upon list, and the only obstacle I kept running into was the fact that I wasn’t supposed to lift more than 10 pounds. With friends and family all helping to load the boat with provisions, an extra outboard motor, fuel, and water, we were ready to go, and only a week past our original departure date. Healthwise, it might have been prudent to wait another week, but we had a good weather window.

We left our dock one morning in early October, and had a rollicking and somewhat eventful journey south. Each day, a little something needed repairing, revamping or reworking. I’d feel my heart skip a beat when the engine occasionally wouldn’t start, or when the electronics would temporarily die just as we were closing in on our day’s destination. I was careful to delegate any heavy actions to my very petite daughter, but she easily handled whatever came her way.

With a problematic VHF and intermittent GPS (one of three aboard, but the only one always at the helm), entering a new harbor each afternoon was usually the most stressful part of the day. I’d feel my heart pounding when docking or maneuvering into a slip, but I chalked this up to new and nervous situations, not to a medical issue. After all, hadn’t I just received a pacemaker to keep my heart beating?

With modern technology, I was able to send EKGs to the cardiologist from the boat as long as I was within cell-phone range. I felt comfortable knowing that someone in the great ether was watching over me. But when I heard the cardiologist’s voice on the other end of the phone, asking me if I’d noticed the hummingbird heart, I felt my mood plummeting, once again.

I guess the darn pacemaker only works to speed me up, not slow me down. Apparently, I had a new medical condition that had nothing to do with being nervous.

The next day in Cuttyhunk Harbor, safely on a mooring, Maggie and I saw the anemometer spike at 40 knots. It was too rough to take the Zodiac into the island, so we had plenty of time to discuss our plans. We baked muffins and made another pot of coffee as we discussed our options. Should we continue south to a pharmacy in Rhode Island or head back toward home? It was a hard decision to make, but we made the right one for the situation. We’d head back the way we came; and Onset, at the west end of the canal, was our new destination. Starting a new medication while heading offshore wasn’t something that either of us felt good about. After the decision was made, the wind died down, the sun came out, and we spent a glorious afternoon walking around Cuttyhunk.

The next morning, 10 days after we’d left home, we headed back up the coast. Almost as if it was planned, the wind again cooperated with the tide. It blew 15 to 20 knots from the northwest as the tide was flooding, carrying us toward home. Hmm, maybe there was another someone watching over me.

Tracy Adams grew up cruising with her grandparents out of Vinalhaven Island, Maine. Teaching sailing during high-school summers, she realized that sailing would always be a major part of her life. Tracy lives, works and sails in midcoast Maine, and spends summers cruising on her 35-foot Ericson sloop.